Halloween Horror: Psycho II (1983)
What an odd film to exist, and yet, not a worthless one. Psycho II came out in 1983, 23 years after Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, but decades before long-awaited sequels became de rigeur for Hollywood. While there’s little pressing reason for this film to exist, as the conclusion of Psycho wraps up the action so neatly, the second film doesn’t simply repeat the first film, even if there are formal repetitions throughout. Psycho II manages to dig further into the psychology of Norman Bates and position him as a tragic hero, while still providing enough thrills and twists to overcome its sillier elements.
Written by Tom Holland (a signature figure in 1980s horror as the writer of Child’s Play and director of Fright Night) and directed by Aussie filmmaker Richard Franklin, Psycho II picks up 22 years after the first film. Due to his rehabilitation, Norman Bates is released from a mental institution and returns to the motel and mansion sitting alongside the backroads of California. He takes a job at a diner and befriends Mary (Meg Tilly), a young woman working at the joint, who soon moves in with him as she has been recently dumped by her boyfriend and has nowhere to stay. Norman grows attached to the girl, but soon enough, people start getting murdered and Norman’s psychoses begin resurfacing, making him (and everyone in town) suspect that Norman’s the murderer and “Mother” has returned.
Like the first film, Psycho II features a big twist midway through. However, instead of killing off its main character, this film surprises us with who its villains are. The reveal is effective at making us rethink the film’s central relationships and does a lot to retroactively excuse suspicious behaviour early in the film. As well, it squarely forces our sympathies onto Norman, who remains the unambiguous hero throughout Psycho II.
It’s interesting viewing Psycho II from the framework of our modern culture, where mental illness is in the process of destigmatization and figures like Norman Bates are afforded far more sympathy in the press than they were in the past. Psycho II exists on the cusp of this new thinking about mental illness. In some ways, it leans hard into the ethos of the 1950s and 1960s, where psychotics were convenient figures for horror literature and film, akin to human monsters—how else do we explain the film’s unrestrained glee as Norman slips back into psychosis or the revelry in the slasher violence later in the film?
However, in other ways it rightly points out that Norman is not responsible for his psychosis and that the abuse shown him throughout, whether by Dennis Franz’s slovenly motel manager, or by the casual way that youth mock his illness, is unwarranted and even cruel. Most fascinatingly, Psycho II has Vera Miles reprise her role as Lila Loomis (née Crane) from the first film, but instead of having her repeat her role as a righteous do-gooder, she takes an antagonistic role here, trying to warn people of Norman’s supposed-inherent evil. In fact, the film neatly manages to make a victim of the first film the villain here—just as it makes that film’s villain the victim here.
It’s in the exploration of Norman as a victim and the way the community around him essentially forces him to regress that makes the film so interesting. For instance, the townspeople are adamant that Norman is not cured and that his mental illness is an excuse for murderous impulses. This leads them to berate and abuse him to the point where he has no choice but to regress into his old psychoses as a means of defense. They think him a monster so they’re determined to make him one. This sort of psychological and sociological insight is uncommon in horror sequels and surprisingly deft. As well, Anthony Perkins is up to the task of exploring Norman’s struggle and decline, putting in an even-more sympathetic performance as Norman this time around. The mere juxtaposition of his aging body in oversized (and outdated) clothes and his boyish voice is saddening, a constant reminder of how although his body has aged, his mind hasn’t. It’s as if he’s a boy trapped in the body of an aging man.
Unfortunately, the film bears too many of the traits of other horror sequels. For instance, it creates a mythology around Norman Bates and his family that is unnecessarily complicated. Generally speaking, in an initial horror film, the villain is a figure of almost metaphysical terror, whether Norman Bates in the first Psycho or Michael Myers in Halloween or the demon in Paranormal Activity. However, subsequent sequels know they cannot recapture that purity of horror and so opt to create a vast mythology and history around the villain, providing numerous explanations for the horror that he inflicts. Here, that complication serves to confound instead of expand the narrative. There are revelations late in the film that are bafflingly disconnected from everything else that happens.
In terms of visuals, the sequel is sadly a far cry from the original Psycho. Although there are moments of genuine invention here—the final shot of the film, for instance, is chilling—most of the film is noticeably looser in construction than Hitchcock’s film. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect another filmmaker to live up to Hitchcock’s visual standards, but the comparisons here are inevitable.
At least the film does some interesting things in repeating visuals from the first film, using that repetition to hint at Norman regression back into his illness. Psycho II actually opens with the footage of the shower scene from the first film and later, it visually repeats motifs from the first film, whether the overhead shots of the staircase in Norman’s house, a murder involving a character falling, and a peephole looking into the bathroom. Sadly, many of these repetitions are excuses to indulge in excess in ways the first Psycho could not, whether it’s nudity spotted through the bathroom peephole or gruesome gore in the murder scenes. I think many of these visual repetitions would be more interesting had the film been shot in black and white. Aside from the final shot, Psycho II does little to utilize colour aside from revel in the blood of murder as a means to visually distinguish itself from the first film.
These reservations aside, Psycho II is one of the more interesting horror sequels of the 1980s. For all its generic shortcomings, whether convoluted mythology or an indulgence in sex and gore, it acutely understands the appeal of Norman Bates and does a good job of sympathetically exploring his struggles as a human being and not just a horror villain. As many films try to do but fail, it shows the man in the monster.
6 out of 10
Psycho II (1983, USA)
Directed by Richard Franklin; written by Tom Holland; starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, Hugh Gillin.